There Was No "Tiananmen Square Massacre"

This story was filed by CBS News correspondent Richard Roth, who was detained by Chinese authorities for 20 hours on June 4, 1989, while covering the Tiananmen Square "crackdown".
(AP (file))
For years now (certainly by the time of the 10th anniversary of Tiananmen) scholars — and many journalists — have been describing it as a weekend massacre, a massacre in Beijing, the "Beijing massacre" or the "crackdown" in Tiananmen, but not a "Tiananmen Square massacre."

"Tiananmen massacre" is a phrase that still has currency, but it does tend to be used a lot less now in careful accounts of what happened there.

Behind this is the weight of eyewitness accounts, de-classified Western government reports, and historians' work that supports the story of a brief period of negotiation between the army and some student hold-outs (there weren't all that many left in the square by then) when troops began entering the square in force just before dawn -- silencing the public address system loudspeakers with a volley of gunfire. The last group of protestors filed out of the square to the south soon after.

I was being held captive by Chinese army troops on the south portico of the Great Hall of the People (which forms one of the borders of the Square) when that round of gunfire occurred.

I could hear it but I could not see into the Square. Around forty minutes later, Derek Williams and I were driven in a pair of army jeeps right through the square, almost along its full length, and into the Forbidden City.

Dawn was just breaking. There were hundreds of troops in the square, many sitting cross-legged on the pavement in long curving ranks, some cleaning up debris. There were some tanks and armored personnel carriers. But we saw no bodies, injured people, ambulances or medical personnel — in short, nothing to even suggest, let alone prove, that a "massacre" had recently occurred in that place.

Later, being debriefed on-air by Dan Rather, I recall making an effort to avoid using the word "massacre." I referred to an "assault" and an "attack."

I reported what I saw; I said I hadn't seen any bodies. Admittedly, I've never made a point of trying to contradict a colleague on the air; I've simply stuck to my own story, because I've believed it's true.

Some have found it uncomfortable that all this conforms with what the Chinese government has always claimed, perhaps with a bit of sophistry: that there was no "massacre in Tiananmen Square."

But there's no question many people were killed by the army that night around Tiananmen Square, and on the way to it — mostly in the western part of Beijing. Maybe, for some, comfort can be taken in the fact that the government denies that, too.
  • Richard Roth

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